David Allen, artistic director of the Midland Actors Theatre in Birmingham, reflects on theatre closures in an interview with Natalia Parzygnat.
If David Allen had to sum up what the last few months have been, it would be “Groundhog Day”. In the movie, the main character, played by Bill Murray, stuck in a little town, Punxsutawney, relives the same day.
Allen says that people can relate to that:
“Every day is the same. Every day just seems the same. This is a feeling I think a lot of us have had. You get up, and even though you might be doing a bit of different work every day, it seems the same.
“I think that all of us just want to escape from that.”
As the main character in the movie eventually wakes up to another day, Allen hopes that soon enough, everyone in the theatre industry will also be able to work on performances, and people would crave live theatre. So how have the past 12 months been for theatres?
“There is also just the artistic frustration. I think everybody in the theatre business is just feeling very frustrated because you want to be doing the work,” says David Allen.
Live theatres have been one of the worst-hit industries during the lockdowns, with many people becoming redundant or working in other professions.
“I think everybody’s just had to adjust depending on what field you’re doing your work.”
Allen added that the closures of theatres most impacted actors and actresses. Some of the “talented professionals left” while “many actors are doing jobs they don’t really want to do.”
In October, one of the actors who played in Midland Actors Theatre‘s production “Exit” quit his job at a supermarket to perform in a play.
“As soon as he got my phone call, he went to the manager of a supermarket and said, I quit, and he quit that moment because even though it wasn’t like months of work, he really just wants to be back doing things.”
Dominic Thompson, who will play one of the main characters in a production of “Descent”, cannot wait to come back to acting.
“I cannot wait! This year has been an absolute nightmare, and generally, dealing with cancellations has been crazy. Madness. And being able to be back in the rehearsal room, rehearse and work with the director, actors on that creative level will be amazing and then to be on stage and have a live audience. I cannot wait to get back in there, and it has been missed, really missed.”
While some actors, theatre set designers or make-up artists were unable to work, filmmakers or photographers collaborating with the company managed to keep their projects going.
Some theatre companies faced financial issues and had to apply for grants to survive.
Midland Actors Theatre had to postpone most of their performances last year. In October when they were briefly opened they filmed a one-person production called “Exit”.
Their last filmed play about the man being stuck in a prison cell sums up well “the desire to exit and the desire to get out from our sort of little prison cells that we feel like we’re stuck in,” says the director.
Now just a few months before coming back on stage, they are “rethinking” their new play for any changes that might affect further closures of theatres.
“According to the government’s roadmap, come June 21, everything’s back to normal again, but we do not know. Something else might happen, so we’ve had to prepare and rethink the play and production that we’re doing.”
Allen added that more than ever, directors need to come with creative ideas for making live performances safe for all. Currently, he works on a production of “Descent”, which will be performed at an abandoned factory in Birmingham at the end of July.
The artistic director has noticed that the current situation made creative industries rethink the way they operate. Theatre companies have focused on building their online profile, with some of the plays being streamed online.
National Theatre recently released the streamed theatre play “Romeo and Juliet”, which is available to watch online.
Going online, theatres have become more accessible for people, but the “Descent” Director says some risks are associated with that.
“I think that the danger is we’re going to see very much screened down theatre (performances being streamed online like movies). Because there have been so many cutbacks, and companies will come out, at least to begin with, smaller. I’m thinking in terms of the big national companies they will, and the repertory companies they will be smaller, people have lost their jobs.”
The pandemic forced theatre producers to be more creative findining new solutions and using technology to stream performances online.
In 2020 the number of productions being played online had increased, with some theatres choosing to record a play in empty theatres and stream live. But Allen hopes that a new “cinematic” theatre experience will not replace live theatre interactions.
“Oh no, I think theatre is got to be about live interaction, live interaction between actors and actors and the audience, and a live event it’s in the moment. “
What has the Midland Actors Theatre been doing during the lockdown?
Midland Actors Theatre has been working on a variety of projects during the pandemic, with some of them including:
- Collaborating with European partners looking at new methods of teaching through drama.
- Working on a project with children from a local school to produce an online heritage trail
The Ladypool Road Heritage Trail was produced “for the community by children” by George Dixon Academy. Going back in time, people can discover how the local areas have changed since the 1950s and find out more about the local history.
“I’m quite proud of that piece of work. Everyone interested in local history can pick up online trails and discover local history and local shops in the area which were there in 1950 and 60. The project was produced for the community by children.”
As the lockdown restrictions are easing and the theatres have been given a date for reopening, the artistic director hopes that people would crave live performances and the government would recognise the importance of keeping theatres open.